Noah Strycker's Antarctic Life Is for the Birds

(By Kirsten Lindquist)
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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Cape Crozier, Ross Island, Antarctica could be called a birder's final frontier. Noah Strycker is there at just 22 years old, conducting research on penguin behavior and breeding habits for Point Reyes Bird Observatory. Strycker has been a fast-track birder since his childhood in woodsy western Oregon, and a published bird photographer since his early teens. His life bird list has more than 1,600 species of Earth's approximate 10,000 species: On average, that's more than a bird a week since Strycker's birth. Antarctica is his sixth continent for bird research. "It's a good thing no birds live in outer space, or I'd be training as an astronaut," he says.

-- Elaine Beebe

Help us picture Antarctica.

Mostly white. I live with two other researchers above an ice-covered valley. From our vantage point, snow and ice slope about a mile down to the Ross Sea, which is frozen hard enough to land a jet. At the lower end of the valley, about 300,000 Adelie Penguins are nesting in an enormous colony. Think of the crowd at the biggest rock concert you've ever been to, and quadruple it, but everyone else is two feet tall, wearing a tuxedo, and smells like fish. Other than the penguins, not much life exists here. No plants grow. It's a stark place.

How exactly do you count penguins?

We track birds with unique numbered tags they wear on their left flipper. By keeping tabs on individuals over time, we can learn how penguins survive in this harsh environment. The colony here must be one of the great bird spectacles on earth. It is hard to explain the total impact of so many penguins nesting, croaking, staring, defecating, sleeping, and mating all at once. Individually, each one is full of personality. They have little fear of humans, and will often deliberately waddle up to get a closer look or just keep company. Get too close to their nest, however, and they bite!

Which types of birds have you seen?

Three bird species nest at Cape Crozier: Adelie Penguins, Emperor Penguins, and South Polar Skuas. Emperors are usually visible out on the frozen sea ice: They recently starred in the movie "March of the Penguins," which was filmed near here. Skuas are predatory gull-like birds that scavenge penguin eggs. We occasionally see a Snow Petrel, one of the few all-white birds on earth, and saw the first Southern Fulmar here in 13 field seasons.

What's an average day like?

I spend half an hour working up the guts to leave my sleeping bag. Breakfast is a bowl of oatmeal and hot chocolate. After an hour of digesting and entering data, I put about 40 pounds of gear into my backpack: optics, nest tags, energy bars, GPS, extra clothing.

ThenI layer up, slather my nose with max sunscreen, put on goggles to prevent snow blindness, strap crampons on my boots and walk down the ice to the penguin colony.

I wander among the penguins, searching for tagged birds, for about six hours every day. For each individual, I record data on nesting status: how many eggs or chicks it has.

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